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by Sara Paretsky
G. P.Putnam's Sons, September 2003
416 pages
ISBN: 0399150854

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In this book by one of the grand masters of mystery fiction, we find a medley of evil, crime, miscues, and tragic failures to live up to public images. The story taking place in the present conveys the reader back to the appalling events of the fifties when the House un-American Activities Committee presumed to judge who was and who was not a proper American and made sure that those who were not were blacklisted, fired, even jailed for failing to name names. There is, frighteningly, a parallel drawn with the present-day Patriot Act which could, in the wrong hands, be used the same way.

There is also some fascinating information about the Federal Theater Project, especially the Federal Black Theater Project which, in Chicago as well as other large cities, gave black artists a significant opportunity to create play, song, and dance for legitimate audiences, allowed them to experiment with new and creative material, and brought many people to theaters who had never attended before. This was a short-lived experience, because the government found itself under attack for supporting a Communist organization and shut the Project down. There is a theme throughout of government regulation of ideas.

V.I. is hired to investigate why Geraldine Graham is seeing lights in the old Larchmont mansion in a very wealthy western suburb of Chicago. Geraldinešs son Darraugh thinks his mother is looking for attention, but he humors her. While on the Larchmont grounds,V.I. literally runs into Catherine Bayard, the granddaughter of one of the idols of her youth, Calvin Bayard, one of the few who refused to testify before HUAC or give names in any way and got away with it. Later she stumbles over a body in the pool, that of Marcus Whitby, a black journalist. In spite of all the attempts of the police to sweep this under the rug, V.I. insists on an investigation.

The society out in New Solway is old money, nearly incestuous, and difficult for an outsider to penetrate. The very rich are different; they have power and ways to shield themselves from police and brash private eyes. Their lives are lived behind forbidding walls, although the servants know and share everything that is happening. This is an absorbing look at American aristocracy and its flaws.

V.I. is a difficult person to savor. She is prickly, intense, with an absolute sense of right and wrong, and a complete integrity which will not allow her to cut corners, to lie even for what might be the common good, or to refuse to see the truth. She burns bridges for herself quite often. She leads a lonely life because of her inability to compromise on what she knows is right. She is a very well-developed, fully rounded, three-dimensional character, whether one likes her or simply admires her. She forces her way into our minds and our heads and while we know we do not have the black-and-white integrity she has, we cannot but admire her even as we know she would be happier without it.

The sense of place is outstanding. Chicago belongs to Paretsky. No one describes it better, no one creates it in the pages of a mystery better, no one takes the reader to the real city behind the elegant stores along the Miracle Mile or the crumbling buildings of Cabrini Green. She also produces a vivid and graphic suburb within which the wealthy hide, and we are immersed in its forested land, its golf course, its old mansions, and its inhabitants. The images are graphic and hard to forget.

The other characters are equally alive and lifelike. There is no confusing the many people who vie for our attention. The writing, of course, is exquisite and never gets in the way of the readeršs enjoyment of the story. The plot is complex, many-layed, and subplots abound. There are many levels on which this book can be read and many conclusions that can be drawn from the events. V.I. finds the parallels between the past and the present appalling and so do I. But you do not have to agree with the beliefs of V.I. to relish this excellent and challenging mystery.

Reviewed by Sally A. Fellows, June 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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